Conquering College

Learning how to get organized, study hard, and find balance is as essential as reading Shakespeare for college students with ADHD.

Two female students in front of a laptop
Two female students in front of a laptop

College is a chance to fly from the nest, no ropes attached, no net underneath. The choices are intoxicating, but the challenges can overwhelm. Greater freedom, less structure, and huge time demands can pull you in all directions. You must develop new social networks and build routines from scratch.

In class, you have to understand and organize mountains of information, and find a way to remember it all for the final exam. If you run into trouble, you must be your own advocate. There’s no plan in place to steer you through. Yet each year proud students with ADHD and learning disabilities flip the tassels on their mortarboards before tossing them skyward.

Part of the secret to college success is knowing exactly what you want to accomplish — today, tomorrow, this month, this semester, this year. With a clear idea of where you want to go — and strategies to give you a good start — the sky truly is the limit.

Academics: No Time to Tarry

Even if you sailed smoothly through high school, don’t be surprised to encounter choppy seas at college. Now it’s up to you to impose the structure, discipline, accountability, and organization needed for academic success.

At the same time, you’re nose-to-nose with the biggest challenges for someone with ADHD: term papers and final exams. With time at a premium, it’s tempting to skip the practice sets you don’t have to hand in. But falling behind isn’t an option. Instead, follow these tips to help you stay the course, or work with a coach for additional strategies and support. Even at college, you don’t have to go it alone.

  • Keep up with assignments. It’s tempting to blow off the first weeks of the term and think you’ll catch up later. It never happens. Professors will ratchet up the workload; by the third or fourth week, it will double. And if you skip the basics, you won’t have the foundation to understand what comes next.

Get the books you’ll need before classes begin, so you can start the reading in advance. Look for the class syllabus online, and use it to schedule study and work time for the semester. Break assignments into achievable chunks. If you have to read five chapters by Friday, for example, plan to do one a day. Do the same for long-term projects and big exams.

  • Build in rewards. During a work or study session, reward yourself with a five-minute telephone or e-mail break, or a handful of m&m’s. Make rewards tangible and frequent — you deserve them.
  • Make yourself accountable. Being accountable to someone else is a good motivator to work hard. Plan to study with a group, or tutor a friend who needs help. Arrange work sessions with other students, even if you’re doing separate projects. Or ask your professor if you can stop by to show him how you’re organizing your term paper.
  • Prepare for class. If your professor posts class notes online, read over the day’s lesson before you get it in class, or review it with a classmate. The better you know it when it’s covered in class, the more you will retain. Download the notes and bring your laptop to class so you can add to them during the lesson. Or print them out and bring colored pens and highlighters to mark points for emphasis.

If you’ve never had this professor before, take copious notes, or use a cassette recorder. Can’t copy graphics fast enough? Bring a digital camera, and download the image into your computer.

  • Arrive early. Plan on getting to class a few minutes early so you’re ready to listen when the lecture begins. Transitions are difficult for people with ADHD; giving yourself time to open your book and look through the chapter is a good way to help you shift gears.

Often, the most important points or housekeeping details (an upcoming test!) are discussed in the first five minutes. Hang out for a few minutes after class, too. It’s a good time to clarify something you’re unsure of, and to hear the professor answer other students’ questions.

  • Nourish your brain. You may have long classes or lectures followed by labs. Between classes, munch on high-protein snacks — nuts, beef jerky, a protein bar — to sustain your energy and attention. If permitted, snack during class, too, to keep yourself alert until dismissal.
  • Ask for accommodations. If you have a documented disability, you have a legal right to “reasonable accommodations.” Contact the college disabilities office to learn what’s available. Tutors, readers, note-takers, oral exams, extra time on tests, and assistive technologies can make all the difference if you start to flounder.

Each semester, before courses begin, let your professors know the challenges you may face. Meet with them again in advance of major tests and papers. Doing so will help you stay on track, study the right material, and manage long-term projects.

  • What turns you on? College is a time to discover and follow your passions. Look for classes that intrigue you or will help you reach your goals. Don’t be afraid to take a tough course, declare a demanding major, or pull together a unique program of independent study. You’re likely to work hard and stay focused if you’re inspired.

The Social Scene: Do the Right Thing

College is something like the Wild West. Gone are the rules and strictures that have guided you until now. Here, anything goes — and usually does — right before your eyes. Without the family and friends who steered you through high school, it’s easy to lose your way.

In college, you’ll need to create a new community, and new rules, to be your guideposts.

  • Find kindred spirits. Students with ADHD have a special incentive to avoid drugs and alcohol. Impulsive behavior, poor judgment, and a desire to fit in make it difficult to say no or to set reasonable limits. Look for people with the same hobbies, sports, religious views, or political perspectives, and spend time with them in casual settings and in organizations and clubs.

Friends who understand you and share your values can protect you from temptation and from pressure to test your limits. And if you do get into trouble, they’ll throw you a lifeline.

  • Seek balance, draw boundaries. Is your social life using up time needed for study? You’ll need to draw boundaries and not over-commit. Make sure your friends know they can’t call after a certain hour, and have a set time to turn off the phone and lock the door. Ask your roommates to respect your study times, too, and stick to them.
  • Be risk-averse. People with ADHD have a hard time recognizing trouble until it’s too late. Are you skipping early classes because you stay up late drinking? Are you losing money at online poker?

You can put your health, your college career, and your tuition in peril if you fail to think ahead. It can be hard to recognize your own weakness; if you have difficulty spotting danger, ask a friend to keep an eye on you and tell you when you’re heading for trouble.

  • Consider counseling. College is a microcosm of the real world, overflowing with opportunities. It can be surprisingly difficult to achieve balance and to make good choices. If you feel you’re heading down the wrong path — or even if you have a minor hurdle to overcome — go to your college counseling center. It will be the first of many good decisions.
  • Pair your pleasures. Even when your workload’s full, you don’t have to forsake friends. No matter how busy you are, eating regular meals and getting exercise are key to any college student’s success. Meet a friend for lunch or work out with a partner to get in some socializing without cutting into your study time.

Organization: Fending Off Chaos

Organization and time management are essential to college success. Without parents or teachers looking over your shoulder, disarray can sink you, and a good night’s sleep can be no more than a dream. (Indeed, lack of sleep is often a major problem for college students with ADHD.) Without frequent deadlines to keep you on task, it’s easy to fall behind. Here’s how to structure your environment and your day.

  • De-clutter your room. If you haven’t already left for school, leave behind half of what you’ve packed. Take only the bare necessities — things you’ll use at least once a week. Anything else will only create clutter.

If you’re already at school, box up everything that doesn’t meet the once-a-week test, and put it in a closet or storage area.

Do the same at your desk. Store supplies you use frequently in drawers, and whisk the rest away, leaving the desktop free of distraction so you can focus on course work.

Assign places to everything-your books, toothbrush, wallet, keys. Knowing where to find them will get you out the door faster.

  • Manage your time. Put your daily schedule in writing. Start by listing everything you do-waking up, eating breakfast, going to class, doing laundry, checking e-mail, and so on. Assign each activity a time slot, beginning with classes, labs, rehearsals, athletics, and other preset blocks of time. Now fill in the rest of the schedule, including meals, sleep, studying, and time with friends, prioritizing as you go.

If you’re comfortable using gadgets, plug the information into the calendar function on your cell phone, MP3 player, or personal digital assistant (PDA), and set reminder alarms. (See “Guidance and Gizmos,” page 22b.) If you can’t put together a realistic schedule, consider working with a coach or counselor.

  • Schedule for success. Think about where and when you study best. Are you most productive after class, after dinner, late at night? Block off two to three hours (more than three brings diminishing returns), and plan to do the hardest work first. Find a study place less distracting than your room. It might be the library, a café, or a room reserved for students with disabilities — whatever works best for you.
  • Carry a laptop. With your computer close at hand, you can take notes in class and file them into course folders, work on assignments in your spare time, and keep a searchable record of everything by subject and date.

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